Cursed, But Blessed!

I know, I know, it’s been a while since my last post. But if you’ve read enough of them you know that I love my summer road trips, and they keep me pretty busy. Not busy enough, however, to stop me from thinking about things that I’d like to blog about. Here’s one that popped into my mind as I toured California again for nearly three weeks. And if you don’t mind, I’m including snaps from my trip!

I don’t know how many times I’ve declared myself a “lucky girl.” The term just seemed appropriate, and it illustrated that I didn’t take the life I had (and the life that I still have) for granted. A good paying teaching gig, friends to travel the globe with, a few people who really, truly love me.

And then, cancer struck in the autumn of 2019, and just about the worst case scenario I could ask for was mine: Stage IV lung cancer. A curse for the rest of my life, which probably wouldn’t be much longer anyway. After a pretty good run of being a “lucky girl,” my time would wind down and I’d fade away, into the sunset. In like a lion, out like a lamb.

But wait. After seeking top tier medical care, things started to look considerably brighter. Nearly three years later, I’m still here. Not only that, I continue to do what I love to do. So the question looms: am I still a lucky girl? Am I luckier than lucky? Or am I truly cursed?

I think that all apply. Let’s talk about being “cursed” first and get it out of the way. That’s how I like to do things in life: saving the better stuff for last.

Because of the life that I’ve lead, that, by the way, I made for myself through sound decisions and hard work, I’ve been the target of what the world now appropriately calls “haters.” A perfect term! And regardless of how the world coaches you to handle “haters,” there’s only so much vitriol you can take before is starts to stick. When “haters” touch on every aspect of your life, from your body, to the way you travel, even to what you have in your freezer, the hurt sinks in deep. When these individuals not only hurt you, but also the people you love most in the world, the sorrow becomes unbearable. You would hope that the hatred has stopped since I got cancer? It has not, and in some ways it has only gotten worse, since I not only have to deal with this disease, I have to deal with them too. Between cancer and them, I would honestly rather deal with cancer. At least cancer can be controlled for periods of time. The nasty humans that I’m talking about don’t ever stop the abuse and the pain. On top of all this, I’m dealing with the death of the only person I could really talk to about my illness, and about their sickening way of treating me. The past few months have been incredibly trying, and sometimes I’m not sure that I can go on, or that I want to go on, or that I want to keep doing well.

But then…I think of all the things that I’ve done in this life and how there are so many other things I want to experience before I leave this world. And in spite of this disease, I can still do them! Herein lies the blessing. I may have the deadliest cancer at the deadliest stage, but lung cancer has treatment options that other cancers don’t have, treatments that sometimes allow patients to live normal lives for many years. Thus far, I fall into this category. I’ve maintained my lifestyle of hiking, biking, and traveling, something that my oncologist has said has contributed greatly to saving and extending my life.

The past three years have not been easy. Radiation, scans, medication changes, progression, side effects, haters. But I’ve had a lot of fun too. I can’t say that I haven’t. And as always, I’m not seeking sympathy. I’m just putting my feelings out there, trying to write on topics of interest, and hoping that maybe I’m helping someone who has the same issues.

So you see the confusing life that I lead now. Then again, I have lead that same confusing life for decades. Great love, crushing adversity. Loss, and luck. Extreme sadness, extreme joy. Sometimes, all at once.

Some days I wake up feeling like crap and I tell myself, “I can’t do this anymore.” But then I think of the two family members who still love and need me, I think of some of the great friends I have, I think of my sweet bunny Muffin, and my traveling and writing and hiking, and I say, “Okay, I’ll keep trying to get through this.” These days, I’m looking for a fresh start. Have to keep moving forward for that.

Cursed perhaps, but blessed more.

Fangirling!

Hey, is fangirling a word? Well, if it isn’t, it is now!

I’m not normally a gushy, shivering mess when it comes to celebrities. But on my current road trip (I’m starting this post from Cleveland, Ohio, almost at the end of my drive home,) the past two days have been spent paying homage to some of my all-time favorites, namely James Dean and The Beatles!

When you live with a chronic disease like I do, you always have to wonder if you’ll get another chance to do what you love. Then again, life isn’t guaranteed for anyone, so we all might as well be doing what we want when we can! Which is how I ended up in Fairmount, Indiana, again after a twenty-eight year hiatus, and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the precise time that the “Get Back to Let It Be” exhibit is running…

For whatever crazy reason, on this year’s trip I seem to be revisiting places that my beautiful mom and I first saw in 1994, on our very first cross country road trip, which spanned 9,400 miles, seven weeks, and twenty-four states. You know, that trip that is supposed to be “once in a lifetime” but turns into a yearly occurrence? (Smile.) That was the first time I was in Fairmount, Indiana. James Dean was actually born in the small city of Marion, Indiana, a few miles north, but spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Fairmount. When we first arrived in town I was, quite frankly, obsessed with Jimmy, even though he died in his Porsche Spyder eleven full years before I was born! I may have calmed down and grown up a little since then, but I’m still a big fan.

Much of the same can be said for my “thing” for The Beatles; I totally missed the Ed Sullivan experience by nearly three years, and when my dearly departed sister Marie saw them at Suffolk Downs racetrack on August 18, 1966, I was a few months from departing the womb. But I crave my Beatles lore almost as much as I do their music; seriously, what could be more interesting than being a Beatle?! From what I can recall, my first real brush with my four cherished boys was when I asked Marie to buy me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for one of my birthdays in my teen years. And yes, I still have it! Side note: I’ve been to Liverpool (2002) and am hoping to go back later this year, have walked the “zebra crossing” and written on the wall in front of Abbey Road Studios in London twice, have gone to the Imagine memorial in Central Park, New York City, several times. Just recently I saw Sir Paul in concert at Fenway Park in Boston. Another one off the Bucket List, and another piece of the homage completed!

Getting to Fairmount again meant adding an extra hundred miles of driving to my day, so I had my priorities set. The town is so small that it isn’t such a hard thing to drive the whole length of it, which I had to do anyway, as the items on my list were, naturally, on opposite ends. I would have liked to spend time in the James Dean Gallery and the Fairmount Historical Society (filled, of course, with more Dean memorabilia!) like I did in ’94, but what was most important to me is probably what most super fans would want to see: the grave and his boyhood home, which are very close together. I remember Park Cemetery being quite small the first time I was there, and the grave being very easy to find. Now, the place is huge and signs have to point the way or else no one would ever find it. Dean’s boyhood home has also grown considerably in the past twenty-eight years; his cousin Marcus Winslow, who was just a boy when Jimmy was making his way in Hollywood, now runs a full-fledged farm, and it is a beautiful landscape of rolling green fields and white picket fences. Marcus was out on the riding lawn mower the day I was around, and I’m happy to say that he waved to me. My brush with greatness was complete!

Interestingly, “Get Back to Let It Be” was only a small part of director Peter Jackson’s extensive documentary of the Fab Four and was skillfully inserted into the Level O exhibits of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time to see the best of the hall, but because of the location of the exhibit I was able to take in most of the rest of the floor on the way to The Beatles. “Get Back to Let It Be” consisted of long-shelved excerpts of the tapes made of the recording sessions for the Let It Be album, including the famous “concert on the roof,” as well as instruments used, and other memorabilia. Because it was compact, it wasn’t overwhelming to see the entire thing, and to see it well. I was very satisfied with the entire floor!

Pilgrimages have always been included in my travels. Part of the fun is finding what is sometimes a needled in a haystack. Yeah, I think it’s about time to book that return trip to Liverpool!

An Open Love Letter to Utah

Dear Utah,

I remember clearly when we met: the year was 1995, I was with my beloved mom, and we were driving cross country for the second time. The year before we had cut our teeth with a 9,400 miler that inexplicably, did not include a trip through your glory. Yes, there were many other glories, but maybe not quite like yours. This particular trip had a catch: I had just purchased a little bright pink car that we would leave in Southern California once I found someplace to live there. That was my biggest dream leading up to 1995: living in California, and I lived it for five years. But that’s another story for another day, and it’s a long story, for my love affair with California continues. At times, it even competes for my attentions that I usually reserve for you. Believe me, this is not a slight to you, my love. It just IS.

Well, how do you like that! In writing this letter to speak my appreciation, I realize that I have things a bit wrong. 1995 was not the first time I saw you, it was the first time, perhaps, that I REALLY saw you. Mom and me actually drove up to Zion from Vegas in 1993 and stayed a couple of days. Just a little sneak peek at your well known red rock magnificence, and yes, we were impressed. But as I said, 1995 was the deal sealer. As only a road tripper knows, the power to choose where you go and for how long, to have the time to marvel at the color of the rocks in Glen Canyon and wonder how a strip of I-70 can be more beautiful than seventy-five percent of the rest of Planet Earth, will do it. Love at first sight, and forever love at second. And third. And fourth. And…Whew!!

Records indicate that I didn’t make it back to you until 2008 (how can this be?!) and even then, I only flew into Salt Lake City to drive north into other states. Still, I remember that I was pleasantly surprised by random findings along the way.

Listen, I know what I was doing: I was beginning to explore the world outside of this country, and I was completing the tall task of visiting all 50 states in my domestic travels. I also buried Mom, my best friend and greatest traveling partner (sigh) in 2004, so I was cutting my teeth as a solo traveler and really, just trying to figure out who I was.

And then, a big event took place in 2009: I started hiking. That’s when things started to get serious. Still, the slam dunk didn’t happen until 2013, when I spent two and a half weeks hiking all five National Parks in your awe inspiring southern extremities. Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches. While I loved them all (of course!) one emerged as my favorite, and remains thus: Canyonlands. Even as I chip away at hiking ALL the National Parks in the United States, I just can’t keep away from Canyonlands. Doing the same hikes time after time in Canyonlands. Dreaming of Canyonlands. Not enough time in a lifetime to get enough of Canyonlands. Did I mention I love Canyonlands? 😉

For me, the only other place in Utah that comes close to Canyonlands is Glen Canyon. That narrow strip of excitement between Hanksville and Blanding. Yes, that part of Glen Canyon. The Dirty Devil River. Bridge over the Colorado. Hite Overlook. I take the same darn pictures every time. And I don’t care.

Oh, don’t even get me going!

2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022. COVID19 was the only thing that stopped me from being there in 2020. Our reunion in 2021 was unbelievable, because you see, I found out I had cancer in the autumn of 2019, and guess where I was a month earlier? And the thought of never seeing you again was unbearable.

Cancer sucks. Needles, scans, bad news, one step forward, two steps back. But as I became a pro at all of it, I realized that I had a pretty great defense mechanism: memory. Because of memory I didn’t have to think of scans when I was having scans. I could think instead of all the amazing places I’ve had the incredible fortune of exploring. And, you guessed it: I spent a heck of a lot of time in Utah when I was lying in some MRI beast two thousand miles away. How can I ever thank you for that?

I can’t. But I’ll try anyway, by giving you my continued patronage for as long as I have left in this life.

See you soon, my love.

About Traveling

Hey, this will be my last post for a few weeks. Vacation time is nearly here, and I’m heading back out on the road again. Which makes this the perfect time to write about one of my favorite subjects, for the first time in a while: Traveling!

I always find it so weird when people make it sound like there is some “right” way to travel. That you, as the subject, have to travel in some certain way to be a “traveler” and not a “tourist.” That there is some time frame that you have to spend in a place to make it worth your while and to satisfy others that you successfully “saw” something or somewhere. That one person’s way of traveling is superior to another person’s way of traveling. Last thing I knew, travel was supposed to be fun, like an ice cream sundae, with a learning experience on top, like a shiny red cherry, if you so choose to have one. Then again, maybe a trip is simply an escape from the rat race.

Social media is full of “influencers” who will have you believe that their way of traveling is not only better than yours, but that it’s easy and they’ll show you how to be like them, for a price. You can trot the globe while taking odd jobs like bartending and teaching English as a Second Language. Thanks, I got over working in bars when I was twenty-five, and I teach people’s kids every day and love sending them home at 2:15pm, no questions asked. I like my good paying job with paid vacations. I’d pay to see pictures of those “influencers” doing one of their real jobs in between the glossy shots from the pristine mountain top in New Zealand and the beach in Mexico. I want to see the “influencer” mixing a White Russian and looking picture perfect. Really.

Thank goodness for the unfollow button! I recently had to use it on one of the better known globe trotters that I had been following for a couple of years, because she was being pretty insulting to someone else’s way of life. What the heck happened to live and let live?

The other thought that I don’t agree with is that in order to travel in a worthwhile way you have to go to a foreign country. Make no mistake, I love exploring places outside the United States. I’ve done more than my fair share. But in a pinch, and let’s face it, we’ve been in quite a pinch since March of 2020, I’d take a road trip to the American West above all other traveling. I’ve ticked off forty plus countries thus far and have every intention of ticking off more in my own fashion once I deem it safe for me, but give me that road trip every time. It should come as no surprise that I’m heading to the American West this next trip too! I can’t WAIT!!

Here’s a secret about me that makes me different than the garden variety social media travel giant: I love coming home and I love being home, too. The pandemic gave me an excuse to stick close to home and explore my own backyard more. I always said that “someday” I’d do that more and, well, I didn’t expect cancer and COVID19 to give me the opportunity, but I’ve had a heck of a good time! I’ve always scoured New England in between bigger trips, but not like I have in the past two years. In my favorite movie of all time, Dorothy Gale went to great lengths to find out that her heart was in her own backyard. My heart is still and always will be in the American West, but New England is pretty cool too.

Before my cancer diagnosis I spent the better part of twenty years earning my keep as a special education teacher and traveling on school vacations. Maybe taking an extra day or two on either side to make my time away longer, or even escaping on a long weekend. Now that I haven’t done it for a couple of years I realize that it was exactly the way I wanted to travel. Make my money, pay for a trip, enjoy where I was without having to worry about work, and come home to earn money for more fun. After my diagnosis and through the COVID19 storm I continued my exploration as best as I could. Slowly, I’m getting my travel life back on track, though I’ve decided I want to do things and see places that I didn’t take the time to do and see before. Cruises and islands are of high interest, while twenty hour flights to the other side of the world are not really a priority. Oh, and more road trips, of course! Always more road trips!

In short, the Bucket List is officially made. It was time.

And so, I continue to explore as I see fit, and I am unapologetic.

Travel and let travel.

Work in Progress: A Thousand Winds

I’ve written and published seven books under the pseudonym Brenda K. Stone. They’re fun and a little frivolous and I am extremely proud of them. Lately, I’ve taken a renewed interest in what I refer to as my “rock and roll series” and plan to read it after a long break away from it. The idea to pick it up and start writing again is a complete possibility. But not much will get in the way of finishing my current work in progress, “A Thousand Winds.”

The best writing I’ve ever done? “A Thousand Winds” is it. Since my cancer diagnosis, I come from a different place, and it’s not always a bad thing. It’s a deeper, more thought-provoking place. Interesting fact: I came up with the outline of the book before my diagnosis, and guess what disease one of the main characters was dying from? You guessed it, cancer. I’ve since changed that to ALS, so it wouldn’t hit too close to home. But like most authors, a lot of me is in the story.

The first few pages of any book are so crucial, and I’ve been reworking the prologues of “A Thousand Winds.” For a limited time, you can still read the “old” prologues here. Please enjoy the “new” prologues below, and drop me a line to let me know what you think!

A Thousand Winds

Janice

The way she looked at me is burned into my memory. The message in her eyes spoke volumes: You’re old. Therefore, you’re worthless.

She has no idea.

She thinks her generation invented sex. Drugs. Rock and roll. Millennials, or Generation Z, or whoever the hell they are, with Facebook and Instagram and TikTok, invented the world as we know it. The generation of youngsters who are afraid to show their faces without a “filter”, because one of their “friends” might see their soul, invented history. The “been there, done that” Me Me Me Generation covering up who they really are with whiskers or a pig nose, think they have the world at their fingertips.

 Will she ever know what it’s like to truly be loved? By the same man, for forty-eight years? Could she find joy in a sandbox? Or playing house in the woods, where the rocks are her toaster, the trees her shower stall? Did she ever have to disappear into that same forest to escape a man that would hurt his own daughter to satisfy his sick fantasies? No, because Jim and I protected her from that.

 I wasn’t so lucky.

 Coachella is a town one stop removed from the nightmare of my childhood, yet her biggest adventure. But was she marching in Selma, Alabama in 1965? Was she in the crowd for the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, 1963? Did she watch the Beatles land at JFK on February 7, 1964, after hitching a ride from California?

Am I old and worthless now?

There’s so much more to tell. The life I’ve led even overwhelms me, to the point I have to leave it in the past sometimes as I struggle to move forward.

Kimberly doesn’t know any of it. All she knows is that seven years ago she found out that I’m her grandmother, and who her parents really were. She hasn’t spoken a kind word to me since.

Perhaps she’ll never know where her grandmother has been.

Because she hates me. And I’m dying.

Kimberly

“You’re such an asshole.” I toss a soiled napkin at Zac. I can relate to the crumpled paper as it floats to the carpet.

“I’m just gonna sleep through the whole fuckin’ scene,” he moans.

“C’mon, you have to help me,” I remind him.

“Grandpa Jim and me don’t exactly see eye to eye, remember? And you know what happens when a guy doesn’t see eye to eye with ‘ole Jimbo.” Zac makes a horrid noise as he pretends to cut his own throat with his index finger.

I blink, because his words sting. I feel like he should know better, and if he doesn’t, that I should tell him that he should know better. But I don’t.

Instead, I keep the light mood going.

“Do you think Kylie Jenner gets a visit from her grandfather that used to be her father the day after Coachella?”

We have a much-needed howl when Zac quips, “Did you forget that Kylie Jenner’s father is a chick now?”

My mirth is interrupted by the definitive sound of a car door slamming somewhere on the street in front of my apartment complex. A quick glance out the sliding glass door has me snatching up the napkin and running for my bedroom to put on the nearest pieces of clothing I can reach.

“Put a fucking shirt on, you sexy slob!” I shout into the living room.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Zac scratches his belly and yawns, but is soon behind me pretending to hump me doggie-style as I’m putting on my underwear.

“I see Grandpa Jim still hasn’t traded in the Oldsmobile for the Porsche he deserves,” Zac deadpans. He seems to think that Grandpa has a lot of money stashed away in his mattress. In fact, Zac is obsessed with the thought. Maybe that’s why he’s so hard to get rid of?

“Shut up.” I suck on his bottom lip and rumple his hair. He’s so beautiful that I put up with all his other nonsense.

Zac pats my butt and chases me for a few steps as Grandpa’s knock falls on the door. I’m trying to stifle a grin when I swing it open to face the man who used to be number one in my life.

“Kimberly…”

The look on Grandpa Jim’s face forces my smile to disintegrate.

Here I Come Again

I don’t know about you, but 2022 hasn’t exactly been a memorable year for me thus far. I’ve just dealt with six months of intense back pain dating back to September 2021, in addition to stage IV lung cancer dating back to October 2019. Yay, me.

But guess what? I finally got what I needed. Did my six weeks of physical therapy, (well, eight!) then my insurance company ponied up for my steroid injection. As I type, it has been a handful of days, and I definitely feel a difference. I’m hoping that as the next week or two passes, I’ll feel even better. Just as important as the way my body feels, is the way my mind feels: I finally have a stepping stone for turning my life around. Again. How many times will I do this? How many times will I be allowed to do this before my clock stops ticking? Somehow, someway, I don’t think I’m done. I think I can move forward. As some people like to say, “You got this.”

What a sigh of relief.

Funny/not funny what pain does to you. I can almost handle the cancer, because the odd truth is that my life continued much as it did before my diagnosis once I was on the right treatment plan. But this back stuff? It has tormented me beyond anything physical I’ve ever dealt with, has delivered a crushing blow. Add sucky New England weather to the mix and it’s a true recipe for disaster. I have not been to my favorite local hiking haunt in two months! This is horrific news! From September until November I continued my exploration of the trails around Quabbin Reservoir even though my back ached, and it kept me sane. Since the snow and ice shut me out of much of my outdoor activity I’ve been yearning to get back outside with the animals and the trees, to get my feet moving, take some pictures, feel like I’m alive again. Here I wait (impatiently) for a stretch of weather that’s warm enough to melt some of the ice and give me a Saturday afternoon to get back out there and forget about stuff for a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve kept myself busy with my “indoor” loves: writing my latest book, posting to this here blog, doing my special brand of artwork, reading, working on photo albums, continuing my studies of the Polish language. I’m not giving any of that up! I just have to get back to walking off those steps and miles that mean so much to me and keep me grounded. You really don’t know how very much something means to you until you can’t do it.

Know what else I need to do? Plan travel. I’m heading to South Carolina again in a couple of weeks to see my beloved niece. I need more on the calendar after that. I’ve always kept myself going by making plans. I’m seeing Southern Utah, Cape Cod, California, Oregon, and Portugal in the not so distant future. Maybe later in the year I’ll reschedule my canceled trip to Costa Rica, but COVID19 has to look a lot better before I even think about leaving the country. As long as I go somewhere, I’ll be okay. The idea of getting back to globe trotting and country hopping is always a possibility, but is not the necessity that it used to be. I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff, and I’ll do plenty more, but safety is first and doing what appeals to me most runs a close second.

Right now, my number one goal is to drive twenty miles to the north and walk a flat trail down to the edge of the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts, like I’ve done hundreds of times before. Having the sun shining would be a big plus. Melting snow, even better. And silence. Lord, give me silence! Five miles of silence. I have not done a five miler in several weeks. Several weeks too long.

Even though my feet aren’t quite moving yet again, just being able to wrap my mind around the possibility of resuming my active life is a miracle. Maybe 2022 will have some happy memories after all?

Hey, guess what? I got my airfare to Albuquerque, my chosen gateway to Southern Utah, last night. Booked my hotel on Cape Cod earlier in the week. The forecast for this Saturday is for sun and 50 degrees. I’m adding hiking to that forecast. It can’t come soon enough.

Yeah, I got this.

The Real Meaning of MY Christmas

Happy New Year! Yeah, I know I’ve been absent for a few weeks and am a day late and a dollar short as usual, but like mostly everyone else, my holidays were darn busy. For Christmas 2021, I was supposed to resume traveling internationally by enjoying a trip to Costa Rica. Yet as the day got closer, I knew it wasn’t the right choice. I’ve been experiencing some pretty intense back pain for several weeks now, so that was the first issue that made me question if I was doing the best thing for me. Add the possibility of getting hung up in a foreign country due to COVID19, and the cost of being tested to have the privilege of boarding the plane home, and all arrows were pointing toward exercising my cancellation insurance and waiting until circumstances are better all around.

The decision was still a tough one. I wanted to resume my life of seeing the world, and this was a huge step in the right direction. My last trip out of the U.S. was summer of 2019 in Sri Lanka, before my cancer diagnosis, and I’ve been struggling to be me again since then. Cancelling anything, especially trips, is just not like me. Still, the gnawing inside me said that it wasn’t what I should be doing.

So I cancelled.

Then, a golden opportunity arose.

Even before that, something pretty incredible and highly unlikely took place: no cancer showed up on my last scans taken December 20th! Does this mean that I’m cured? That cancer will never be a part of my life again? That cancer is no longer a part of my life now? That treatment changes or ends? No, it doesn’t mean any of that. It “only” means just what I wrote: cancer cannot be seen. Meaning: it’s probably still there, and will likely come back, but the medication I’m on is controlling it very well for now. How long it will last, no one knows. I can only hope it will be for a long time. This doesn’t diminish the miracle that brought me to this, from where I was a year ago. If you know anything about metastatic cancer, I’m damn blessed. If you knew anything about my cancer specifically, well, I’m a long way from where I was in December of 2020. Read about my roller coaster journey here and here.

The table was indeed set for that golden opportunity.

As soon as I told my niece that I was thinking of cancelling my trip to Costa Rica, she invited me to South Carolina to spend Christmas with her. Yes, this was exactly what I needed: a familiar place where I could rest if necessary, a faithful black dog for quiet company, and maybe even some warmer weather. Not perfect Costa Rica weather, but South Carolina would do! And Costa Rica doesn’t have my niece and her dogs!

I just had to come up with reasonable airfare. From years of traveling at Christmastime, I recalled that December 24th to the 31st are usually the cheap dates. This remains true! I got a great fare and would soon be on my way! But not before wrapping and distributing many presents, falling on black ice, receiving as many presents, seeing friends and family before I left, battling crowds in the stores, starting PT for my back, working full time…

My last two posts are a short story I wrote several years ago. Titled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” it’s a tale about a woman who disdains the holiday, yet finds her own peace in the season. Hmm, sounds like art imitating life! Because of course, that’s just what I did.

Long before cancer, Christmas was a tricky time of the year for me, and remains so. For more than twenty years escaping has been my way to combat ambivalent feelings about Christmas and what it has come to represent in our culture. Most of the time I would run off somewhere and spend the holiday alone, sans blinking lights and jolly men in red suits. South Carolina is my new favorite escape, and I’ve even learned to appreciate my niece’s special brand of hospitality.

We have a routine whenever I go and visit: bowling, a local farm, ice cream, Chinese food. I’ve gotten to know some of the local people and am always made to feel welcome. That naughty blond pup above vies for my attention with her darker brother while her mom spoils her rotten. Usually when I show up the weather gets thirty degrees colder. Not this time! It was in the 70’s all week. My back started to feel a little better, I got lots of sleep and lots of love, collected and gave more presents, and had turkey dinner left over from Thanksgiving, when I couldn’t be there. I found the real meaning of MY Christmas, and made the correct choice for me.

Perhaps I’ll never really love Christmas again, but I’ve made progress.

I had a great holiday, but I’m glad it’s over for another year! Bring on 2022!

Happy Birthday, Ma!

I was supposed to be in New York City today, honoring the life of my precious mommy, but I got rained out, so guess what? I’m dedicating a blog to her!

On this date, July 29th, in 1924, an amazing baby name Genevieve Josephine was born in Palmer, Massachusetts, or that’s the way the story goes. Back then the records weren’t always so accurate. Ma always said that she may have been born on the 27th or 28th. But the accepted date was July 29th, and that’s when we always celebrated the date of her miraculous birth. Ma was someone worthy of many celebrations!

Children never want to think that their parents had lives before they were born. Admittedly, I didn’t know enough about her younger years until after she passed away.

Genevieve’s parents came to the United States via Ellis Island from Poland and were largely uneducated. However, Genevieve was a hard working student at Palmer High School. She always spoke with pride about graduating in 1942. The first picture (above) is her graduation picture. Genevieve, being a daddy’s girl, would hold tight to the dream of someday going to Czestochowa, Poland to visit a monastery called Jasna Gora, home of the world famous Black Madonna, to honor her father by lighting a candle for him there. Maybe Genevieve, being a small town girl, couldn’t dream big enough to think that this would ever come true. But it did. One of her future daughters would make sure of it.

Genevieve worked what some would now call “menial jobs.” But she wouldn’t remember them that way. World War II was raging in Europe and Asia and Genevieve would be a part of the effort to support the troops. When the war was over she would marry a striking but troubled young soldier named Albert and together they would eventually have six babies. All of those children were girls, the first one born in 1951, the year after they were married, and the last in 1966, when Genevieve was 42 years old, quite a feat at that time in history.

Genevieve gave everything and more for her six children, but she never had the comfort of being a housewife, for Genevieve and Albert were not rich by any means. They both had to work full time jobs in order to have a safe place to live, a decent car to drive, and nice things for the children. Genevieve and Albert didn’t seem to care much about that, because they had each other and their six girls.

Then one cold winter’s day in 1977, Genevieve no longer had Albert, because he died suddenly. She had to go on alone and somehow fight through life without her only love. Genevieve kept going to work and keeping her family afloat even though her spirit was ripped away from her without warning. It would take her a decade and a half to get it back. Meanwhile, her beloved children began to scatter and break apart.

Many years after losing Albert, and as her six children struggled to find their own footing, Genevieve found a new and unexpected love: traveling with her youngest daughter, though that love would be fraught with constant worry, as her family fell apart. As strong and as perfect as her love was, it just never seemed to be enough to mend the destructive forces at work around her. As much as she loved traveling, the loss of the love of a few of her daughters, and the death of her beloved husband couldn’t ever be replaced. She would never be able to fully enjoy life again, though there were happy times. She held her head up and moved forward.

In the end, Genevieve went further than she ever thought she would: to that monastery in Czestochowa, Poland to honor her father, to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and on some pretty great road trips to most of the 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. In 2004, Genevieve took her final road trip and never looked back.

Or, maybe she did. But as her youngest daughter and travel companion, I believe there came a time when she said, I’ll see you when you get here, and chose to truly rest in peace.

Seventeen years is a heck of a long time to be without her, but in some ways it’s a relief that she is in that “better place” and away from a few individuals who still insist on tarnishing a legacy of love, from a heart so pure that everyone should be so lucky to know such beauty. Sometimes I wonder why I’ve fought cancer so hard when I’ve had some pretty great opportunities to be with her again, forever. My love of life won out, but next time, who can tell.

For now…

I love you, dear Genevieve Josephine, and I will spend the rest of my life defending your honor, no questions asked, because I know you deserve better. You deserve the best. I will make up for anyone foolish enough to think differently.

Happy Birthday.

California Reunion

Hey, if you don’t mind I’m going to take a break from talking about living with a chronic illness for a post or two. I have to tell you about my reunion with California!

This joyous reconnection with the Golden State was extra special because it came so frighteningly close to not happening. In fact, as I said in my last post, which I wrote while I was on the road, the trip got cancelled twice, the first time because of cancer, the second time because of COVID19. For weeks I was sure that once again something would stop me from going, that it wasn’t meant to be. It was so nice to be wrong! And the trip could not have been more perfect.

If you said that I’m kind of “prone” to hiking trips, you would not be mistaken. However, this wasn’t a hiking trip. Which is not to say that I didn’t do any trekking. Of course I did! But the entire plan was based around seeking out graffiti in Southern California and born from seeing the works of a professional photographer on Instagram who travels the U.S. taking pictures of really cool stuff. I did my research and strung several sights together, then figured that while I was there I may as well just take another week to see some old favorites, and there was my California reunion!

I lived in Los Angeles for five years from 1995 through 2000, and traveled extensively in and around the state. I guess I didn’t really realize until now how blessed I was and am to have been able to do that. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived other than Massachusetts, where I was born and currently reside, and I have to say that for me, a lover of the American West, there could not have been a better place to be. Mother Nature took one of everything amazing and tossed it into California. Sometimes, more that one of everything amazing. Though I’ve been a million other places around the world, I’ve never quite fallen in love with anywhere like I have the American West. I used to crucify myself for never having lived in a foreign country. How silly that all seems now.

Unlike most people, who think the desert is “too hot” and “boring”, I absolutely love it there. Deserts have ghost towns, tumbleweeds, and cactus. What’s not to love about that? I spent several days driving around the Salton Sea, an imposing but fascinating (and smelly) remnant of a failed experiment to lure vacationers and home buyers seeking the good life. If you’re like me and looking for graffiti, sand, and desolation, wow do you ever have to see the Sea! In addition to all that there’s Bombay Beach, an almost ghost that was revived as a quirky artist’s town, and Slab City, an “off the grid” settlement where people live for free. There’s lots of additional interesting art in Slab City as well as East Jesus, the eastern corner of the “squatters paradise.” I even did some research into one of the towns near the Salton Sea because I was inspired to use it for a locale in the book I’m writing. Such excitement from a place most people pass by without giving it a second thought! Is it any wonder why I choose to travel alone so often?

Didn’t I tell you that California has one of everything? Or, let’s make that more accurate: California has EVERYTHING!! Let me expand on that.

The post-graffiti part of my trip brought me to the Sierras, where the best ghost town in America nestles. No, Bodie isn’t in the desert, but it is at the end of a wild dirt road about twelve miles east of Bridgeport, California, and it is a state park, so there is a small fee (I paid $8) that goes to Bodie’s upkeep, which is impeccable. On the way I drove a few hundred miles of US 395, which I have to proclaim one of the country’s great highways. I stopped off in Lone Pine, which is still very much like the desert, and did a short and stunning hike to Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills, where I also got a pretty special view of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the “lower 48” at 14, 505 feet. Did I mention that you can see Whitney through the arch, too? No, the thrills just never end.

Mono Lake and the Mono Basin are right outside Yosemite National Park. To me, Mono is so good it’s okay to skip Yosemite to see it. Don’t miss the short hike through the odd fantasy of the South Tufa Trail. You can bet that I didn’t!

Girl, take a breath…

The June Lake Loop is a sixteen mile drive around four lovely lakes at an elevation of 7,600 feet. Of course I had to get some hiking in here, and I encountered some bristlecone pines, that are said to be the oldest living things on Earth, even older than sequoias and redwoods. Even older than me! The loop was my last stop in the mountains before I headed back to the desert. I had to have one final jaunt in the hot sand before I came back to reality.

Death Valley Junction is the gateway to the park of the same name and a charming little desert hamlet with a hotel and opera house, much of which are beautifully hand painted by its former owner. Read her incredible backstory here. I’ve loved this town since I first saw it on a map as a dreamy-eyed teen, and it was so special to see it again before I moved on to Death Valley. Yes, I intended to hit the trails, but at 100 degrees at seven in the morning, I had to rethink my plans. Hiking had to be done in short bursts with plenty of time in the air conditioned SUV in between! Death Valley has been getting a lot of attention lately for record breaking temperatures, but the mercury varies greatly depending on what part of the park you’re in. I headed to Dante’s View to marvel at the salty Badwater Basin far below. It was twenty degrees cooler and with a hair-mussing wind. Lastly, no temperature was hot enough to make me miss wandering through the pastel hills of the Artist Palette. I felt like I’d fallen into a giant vat of ice cream!

Two weeks, a two thousand mile loop, and I just barely scratched the surface of the greatness of California. Oh well, looks like I’m just going to have to go back!

A Survivor’s Ball, South Carolina

We’ve been through some sh*t together, we’ve been through some sh*t on our own. And last week, we celebrated again by reuniting.

Survivors are not born. They’re made. By struggle. By sadness. By fear. By learning and doing and enduring. I’m not afraid to appear narcissistic by saying that we’ve done them all and more and we’re still here and we plan on being here for a long time.

My beloved niece Amanda is in South Carolina, I’m in Massachusetts. She’s been on a journey of recovery from liver failure for a year and a half now, I’ve been on a Stage IV lung cancer road trip since last September. Neither of us are supposed to be where we are now. But we are. So there.

Traveling is one of the things that I am. I don’t just do it. Though I’ve been criticized for “how” I travel by some who think there’s some hard and fast rules to doing it bigger, better, and faster than me, the truth is that long before I got on an airplane or in a car, I was visiting national parks and monuments on by bedroom floor with a map open in front of my unknowing eyes.  I was discovering foreign lands through age-old National Geographic magazines open on the hall steps. To have the ability to travel taken away from me by cancer was a crushing blow. So imagine the double whammy of rushing down a runway on an American Airlines jetliner and seeing my brave and beautiful niece again all in one compact trip! If this sounds petty to you, maybe you’ll understand someday. I hope you do, but I also hope you don’t have to find out the way we did.

I never cared how I got to where I was going. How much my ticket cost as compared to someone else’s or how good my hotel room was, neither. It ain’t what you’re going to remember when you’re on your death bed. I care even less now. Just let me get there again.

Where was your last trip? Portugal? Good for you. Me, Hell and back. Beat that. But now I plan to make up for lost time, and my sentimental journey to South Carolina was the first step. In a near future blog I’ll talk about the fun stuff we did in more detail, like the trip to the gem mine and the working farm, both with gift shops, of course! But for today, I’ll just recount the more personal aspects of the trip.

Last fall, when I started on my cancer road trip, there was little hope for me to be sitting at my computer and typing this in an upright position, much less boarding an airplane and going places, for a hellishly long time, if ever again. This foray, and my story in general, is one of those miracles you read about in books about someone else. Sure, I was only gone for four days. And no, it wasn’t nearly enough time to celebrate life with Amanda. But in another way, it was the trip of a lifetime, to mark my existence truly beginning again, to set a precedent for getting my life back to the way it was not so long ago, and yet ages ago.

Valentine’s Day had already passed, but not really. February 14th, February 16th, what does it matter? They’re all the same when you aren’t supposed to be where you are, but you are anyway, by sheer force of luck, love, spirit, and whatever else got you there. Lots of presents were shared, tons of dog love, chocolate, and Smarties. How can you go wrong?

We ran around like teenagers and caught up on things. Pretended to be miners in Greenville. Went bowling because the movie choices sucked. Ate at a neat restaurant like the one we’d found in Boone, North Carolina last year. Ended the trip at our favorite China Garden eating seven different flavors of chicken and shrimp and drinking jasmine tea. It was there that I read the Survivor’s Ditty I wrote for us:

Once Upon a Time
Two cute chicks
Survived bad sh*t
Then went out
For Chinese Food
And when they were done
They lived and loved
Like there’s no tomorrow
THE END

Sigh. If only it were that simple.

Early the next morning, I had to leave her and come home to reality and appointments and killing cancer. For four whirlwind days it was like I was normal again. Wait, I am normal again. Maybe I was never not normal? Still trying to figure all this out.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and it ain’t over yet. As I sit and type, I still have treatment to endure. Fingers crossed that I’ve been through the worst of it. And you can bet that I’m hankering for that next trip down the runway. Guess where it will be to? If you guessed South Carolina, you’re right.

Making up for lost time.